September 15, 2009  |  Download PDF  |  Share

Where Ships and Workers Go to Die

Shipbreaking in Bangladesh & The Failure of Global Institutions to Protect Worker Rights

September 2009


  • Some of the world’s largest decommissioned tanker ships—measuring up to 1,000 feet long, twenty stories high and weighing 25 million pounds—have been run up on the beaches of Bangladesh. In July of 2009, 112 tanker ships were strewn over four miles of beach.
  • Thirty thousand Bangladeshi workers, some of them children just 10, 11, 12 and 13 years of age, toil 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for wages of just 22 to 32 cents an hour, doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.
  • According to estimates by very credible local organizations, 1,000 to 2,000 workers have been killed in Bangladesh’s shipbreaking yards over the last 30 years.  Currently, a worker is seriously injured every day, and a worker is killed every three to four weeks.
  • On September 5, 2009, 35-year-old Mr. Hossain was burned to death while breaking apart a South Korean tanker at the Kabir Steel Yard.  Twenty-year old Mr. Ashek remains in critical condition, while three other workers were seriously burned.  Their blowtorches struck a gas tank which exploded, engulfing them in flames. 
  • It is common for workers to be paralyzed or crushed to death by heavy metal plates falling from the ship.  A 13-year old child, Nasiruddin Molla, was killed on July 14, 2008, when a large iron plate struck him in the head at the Sultana shipyard.  Accidents and even some deaths are not reported, and there is never an investigation.
  • Each ship contains an average of 15,000 pounds of asbestos and ten to 100 tons of lead paint.  Shipbreaking workers are routinely exposed to asbestos, lead, mercury, arsenic, dioxins, solvents, toxic oil residues and carcinogenic fumes from melting metal and lead paint.  Environmental damage to Bangladesh’s beaches, ocean and fishing villages has been massive.
  • Helpers, often children, who go barefoot or wear flip flops, use hammers to break apart the asbestos in the ship, which they shovel into bags to carry outside and dump in the sand.
  • Workers lack even the must rudimentary protective gear.  Cutters, who use blowtorches to cut the giant ships to pieces, wear sunglasses rather than protective goggles, baseball caps rather than hardhats, wrap dirty bandanas around their nose and mouth as they are not provided respiratory masks and wear two sets of shirts rather than a welder’s vests, hoping the sparks will not burn through to their skin, which happens every day.
  • Four to six workers share each small, primitive room, often sleeping right on the dirty concrete floor.  No one has a mattress.  In some of the hovels, the roof leaks when it rains, so workers have to sit up at night covering themselves with pieces of plastic.  Their “shower” is a hand water pump.
  • Every single labor law in Bangladesh and every one of the International Labor Organization’s internationally recognized workers rights standards are blatantly violated on a daily basis.  While forced to work overtime, the shipbreaking workers receive no overtime premium.  There are no weekly holidays, no paid sick days, no national holidays or vacations.  Any worker asking for his proper wages is immediately fired.
  • The shipbreaking workers are very clear on two points: that they will die early and that there have been no improvements whatsoever over the last thirty years in respect for worker rights laws or health and safety.
  • The global institutions which direct world trade have miserably failed workers across the developing world who continue to be injured, cheated, maimed, paralyzed and killed on a daily basis.  The G-20 countries, the World Trade Organization, the United Nations, the International Maritime Organization and the International Labor Organization must be held accountable.



If There Is a Hell on Earth, This Is It

By Charles Kernaghan

It is one of the strangest, most striking and frightening industrial sites in the world.  It is large enough to be seen from space, but remains an open secret which few American people have even heard of, let alone seen.  If there is a hell on earth, this is it.  In Bangladesh, 30,000 shipbreaking workers are dismantling some of the largest decommissioned tanker ships in the world—20 stories high, 650 to over 1,000 feet long, 95 to 164 feet wide, which have been run up on the beach in the Bay of Bengal, not far from the city of Chittagong.  In July, the National Labor Committee counted 112 tanker ships stretching across nearly four miles of beaches.

The shipbreakers do some of the most dangerous jobs in the world, toiling 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for wages of just 22 to 32 cents an hour, handling and breathing in dangerous toxic waste with no safeguards whatsoever and under conditions that violate every local and international labor law.  Injuries happen every day—some are paralyzed for life—and a worker dies every three or four weeks.  No one helps them.  The workers say a dog means more to the business owner than a human being.

This is the story of the Bangladeshi shipbreakers, mostly young men, but also child workers who are just 10, 11, 12, and 13 years old.  This has been going on for more than 30 years, and in all that time, the workers are certain of two things—they will die early, and nothing at all has changed in the last three decades.

The G-20 leaders are meeting in Pittsburgh this year in late September.  How is it that over the course of 30 years, the G-20 countries (and before that the G-7), the handful of powerful shipping nations and the companies that dominate global merchant cargo trade, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Bangladeshi government have not—individually and collectively—been able to implement a single improvement?

Make no mistake.  The horrific sweatshop conditions in the shipbreaking yards are not a stepping stone to the middle class.  Rather, the shipbreaking yards are the final cycle of the Race to the Bottom in the global sweatshop economy, and the reality is not pretty.  Workers, including children, use hammers to break up the 15,000 pounds of asbestos in every ship and then dump it on the sand to wash out to sea.  The environment is being destroyed.  And life is cheap.  A young worker whose back was broken when a heavy piece of metal fell from the ship and struck him lies paralyzed, unable to even sit up or control his bowels.  He just lies there.  The owner of the shipyard gave him $1,800 and walked away.

These are in fact the most dangerous jobs in the world.  But unlike in the popular TV series, there is nothing romantic or exciting here. What is going on is the cruel and criminal exploitation of young workers in Bangladesh’s shipbreaking yards.  Four to six workers share each primitive room, often sleeping on a filthy concrete floor.  No one can afford a mattress.

It does not have to be this way.  The workers’ demands are so modest, it should make us blush.  Their dream is to earn 60 cents an hour, to be paid the legal overtime premium, to have one day off each week, sick days, holidays, healthcare for workers injured on the job and the right to organize.  It would cost less than $750 a year to send a child worker back to school—where they belong—to cover books, uniforms and a stipend to replace their lost wages.  This should not be a very hard.  We can help these workers climb out of misery and at least into poverty.

It is the job of international solidarity to push the G-20 world leaders, the major shipping nations and corporations, the IMO and the ILO to finally guarantee the rule of law and to end the abuse and exploitation in Bangladesh’s shipbreaking yards.  The squeaky wheel gets the grease.  When it comes to protecting and promoting worker rights in the global economy, nothing will improve without activism and struggle.

For the full report, please download the PDF file (above)

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